Is Technology the Answer to HR’s Growing Burnout Problem?

Next-generation workplace technologies no longer are being viewed only as tools to boost productivity.

By Dave Zielinski September 5, 2023

The biggest threats to the continued effectiveness and viability of human resources include such factors as being disconnected from the strategic objectives of the C-suite, failing to keep abreast of ever-shifting regulations, and not striking the right balance between serving the needs of leadership and serving the needs of the workforce. 

But lately, an even more daunting threat has emerged that strikes at the heart of HR’s ability to positively impact organizations: widespread burnout and stress in the profession. 

In a 2023 study by Executive Networks, HR leaders reported the highest level of burnout among all working professionals who were surveyed. That survey found HR leaders were far more likely than other business leaders to consider leaving their employers in the -coming year. 

Two of the biggest factors fueling burnout in HR are -ever-expanding workloads and lack of budget to meet organizational needs. The 2022-2023 SHRM State of the Workplace Report found that 70 percent of HR professionals say they’re working beyond capacity and 61 percent say they’re working without enough staff.Screen Shot 2023-09-05 at 115603 AM.png

Feeling overworked and under-resourced isn’t a new phenomenon for HR professionals. What has taken burnout to new heights are the compounding effects and long tail of the COVID-19 pandemic, during which HR practitioners have often been pushed beyond their limits—managing the shift to remote work, overseeing vaccination mandates, coping with rampant labor shortages, and providing emotional support to a frightened and unsettled workforce.

But many burned-out HR practitioners are finding hope and a new lifeline in an unlikely source: next--generation workplace technologies. 

HR is rapidly adopting tools such as ChatGPT and other generative AI technologies, enhanced self-service systems, and no-code software development platforms not only with the traditional goal of boosting productivity, but also as a means of reducing or eliminating the manual, repetitive administrative tasks that account for a disproportionate amount of HR’s workload and steal its scarcest resource: time.

While tools such as generative AI come with some risks and require clear guardrails and employee training to be used effectively, a growing number of HR leaders believe the benefits outweigh the concerns. The rationale isn’t only time savings. Many believe the increasing amount of rote transactional duties their staffs have to perform drains the joy and fulfillment from HR work, impacting staff motivation and engagement. By implementing more of these emerging technologies—in most cases to augment but in others to replace human capabilities—the goal is to shrink oppressive workloads and free up HR professionals to spend more time on higher-value -activities that positively impact both their own well-being and their organizations’ performance.

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The Generative AI Revolution

Technology, of course, is only one potential solution to the burnout and stress that’s ailing the HR profession. Other factors—such as sleeping and eating properly, taking available time off to rejuvenate, and seeking mental health support when needed—are equally important.

But beyond those remedies, savvy HR professionals are finding that one of the most direct ways to address their daunting burnout problem is by turning to cost-effective platforms and apps that can make their jobs less tedious, lift the burden of the initial stages of content creation and automate more processes.

Atop the list of these technologies are generative AI tools such as Open AI’s groundbreaking ChatGPT and DALL-E, Google’s Bard, and a rapidly growing list of niche applications in the field. These technologies differ from traditional AI used in HR in their ability to generate content such as text, images, video and more. Traditional AI, on the other hand, is designed to perform functions such as detect patterns in survey data, answer frequently asked employee questions or match candidate resumes to job descriptions in the hiring process.

HR, recruiting, and learning and development -professionals have adopted generative AI at an accelerating pace since the tools were introduced in late 2022. A study by productivity app company DeskTime found that in the first quarter of 2023, use of ChatGPT in the workplace doubled every month, and its use continues to soar.

While valid concerns remain about the use of generative AI in the workplace, the ability to reduce many tasks from hours to minutes has convinced more HR leaders to implement, or at least start experimenting with, these tools.

Generative AI is now commonly used in recruiting to write job descriptions, personalize candidate communications and summarize job-interview notes; in HR to create first drafts of work policy or benefits-related documents and communications; in performance management by employees to synthesize their accomplishments in self-evaluations; and in learning and development to create courses and assessments as well as help employees design personalized learning paths. Technology analysts say these initial use cases only scratch the surface of what will one day be possible as generative AI evolves. 

Many technology vendors in the HR space have also now embedded generative AI capabilities into their platforms, making it easier for HR practitioners to use the tools in their daily work.

Despite cautions, many CHROs also now favor the use of generative AI. A survey by The Conference Board in the second quarter of 2023 found that 65 percent of HR leaders expect AI to have a positive impact on the HR function over the next two years.

A Lifeline for HR Pros—When Used Correctly

As generative AI takes the business world by storm, one of the functions leading the charge is human resources. A global study by research and advisory firm Valoir found that HR trailed only information technology in terms of organizational departments with the most employees adopting and experimenting with tools such as ChatGPT.

One of the biggest reasons why HR professionals are flocking to the technology is its ability to save time and help reduce the burnout and stress caused by mushrooming workloads. It’s being used to shrink the time required to create job descriptions, update company handbook content, develop onboarding documents and summarize engagement survey findings. Generative AI has become a lifeline for many HR functions. 

While there remain risks and limitations to using this next-generation technology, more HR leaders are consulting with their legal teams to create the necessary safeguards and are forging ahead with adopting generative AI to reduce the administrative burdens and manual tasks that undermine the performance and well-being of their staffs.

A Game Changer for L&D

Many technology analysts say generative AI is having the greatest impact on learning and development. 

“There’s a massive amount of content development work learning professionals have to do that is now being automated through generative AI tools like ChatGPT,” says Josh Bersin, a global HR technology industry analyst and CEO of The Josh Bersin Company in Oakland, Calif.

Thomas Stone, a senior research analyst for the Institute for Corporate Productivity in Seattle, says generative AI has been a boon for time-starved learning professionals and has freed them up for other important tasks that improve learning, such as creating interactive exercises.

“Instructional designers as well as subject matter experts used to spend hours staring at a blank screen,” Stone says. “Now, they can type good prompts into generative AI tools and get 50 percent of the way toward providing content for many courses.” 

Generative AI also is making it easier for employees to ­create personalized learning paths. Workers enter prompts into the tools to get suggestions for courses or content based on their specific goals, interests, skills and experience levels.

Creating Policies for Generative AI Use

The adoption of generative AI also comes with risks that have caused some companies to restrict its use and others to create strict guardrails and related employee training to guide how the technology is applied in the workplace. 

The past year has seen incidents of employees placing confidential information into public versions of generative AI platforms—Samsung Electronics, for example, restricted use of ChatGPT after it found that staffers had uploaded sensitive code to the platform—and additional problems of the technology getting key facts wrong or “hallucinating” by producing fictional content. Some critics also say generative AI only ­produces generic or cliched content.

One organization that has invested heavily in generative AI while also implementing a series of safeguards is the accounting and consulting firm PwC. Joe Atkinson, chief products and technology officer for PwC, says use cases of ChatGPT and other generative AI tools now number “in the hundreds” at the firm, not only within HR but for tasks such as analyzing financial reports and tracking the vast number of contracts used in the organization.

PwC began training all 65,000 of its U.S. employees in the use of generative AI this summer, Atkinson says, with an initial focus on ethical use of the technology. 

“We decided to kick off the training with a focus on things like understanding the key role of human review of ­generative AI’s outputs, on not using confidential data with the tool, and understanding the risks of the technology potentially ‘hallucinating’ or of producing biased outputs,” Atkinson says.

PwC believes it’s important for employees to understand how essential the human role is in effective use of ­generative AI. 

“We believe that using generative AI is augmenting human capability, not replacing it,” Atkinson says, “which means for any outputs from the tools, we expect human review and validation of information. That’s important for creative generation of content, but doubly important for any fact-based analysis.”

Risk Management

Bersin says organizations should mandate source ­validation when creating policies for generative AI. “You have to ensure the source content is validated and trusted,” he says. “That’s not as easy as it might appear, even with internal information.” 

He gives the example of the compliance documentation that banks often use to create employee training around industry laws and regulations. “That information can quickly grow out-of-date,” he says. “If you’re putting old compliance rules into generative AI tools to build new learning courses, you’ll have problems.”

Ravin Jesuthasan, senior partner and global leader for transformation services at Mercer, says generative AI policies also need to consider factors such as the risk of copyright violations because the AI models can be trained on intellectual property created by others on the internet. 

“If you’re using that content, are you opening yourself up to future liability down the road?” Jesuthasan asks. “Because of that risk, we’re starting to see more organizations use these large language models only within their own four walls, where they can use their own data and not what’s out in the public domain for content creation.” —D.Z.

Other Technologies Target Rising Workloads 

Technologies that predate the arrival of generative AI also are proving valuable for reducing HR’s administrative workload and stress levels. Employee and manager self-service tools embedded in core technology platforms such as human capital management (HCM) systems have grown more user-friendly and now feature broader access via mobile devices—two factors that limited the adoption of self-service tools in the past. 

The best self-service tools are designed with the dual goal of shifting some of HR’s customer service duties to employees while also providing the workforce with faster or more satisfactory service. These technologies allow workers to do things such as review paychecks for accuracy in advance, check paid time off or 401(k) balances, and research new benefits options on their own, with little or no HR assistance.

EY, for example, is piloting a new AI-driven payroll chatbot, built using Microsoft Azure’s OpenAI tool, that the professional-services company says is already answering more than 500 employee questions a day about pay-related issues. A sample question answered by the chatbot is: “Why is there a change in the tax amount that I paid on this pay stub versus the last one?”Screen Shot 2023-09-05 at 115628 AM.png

A 2023 survey of HR technology trends by ISG, a technology research and advisory firm in Stamford, Conn., found the use of “direct access” tools, such as mobile-enabled employee and manager self-service platforms, jumped considerably over the previous year. They are now used by 61 percent of responding organizations. Technology analysts stress, however, that there needs to be a clear answer to “What’s in it for me?” for employees when using self--service tools or they’ll view the technology as a negative.

Another technology some HR functions have adopted with the goal of reducing repetitive, manual work are low-code and no-code software development tools that allow nontechnical users to develop basic software applications without the need for programming experience. 

HR is using no-code tools—which feature intuitive interfaces, prebuilt templates, and drag-and-drop functions—to create new software to customize careers sites, export data from HCM platforms to other systems, develop -onboarding apps, and replace spreadsheet-based processes with more-efficient tools and workflows.

The advantage of using no-code tools is that HR doesn’t have to wait for IT staff to build needed software for them. The research and advisory firm Gartner predicts that by 2026, employees outside of IT departments will account for 80 percent of the user base for low-code and no-code development tools. 

Evelyn McMullen, a research manager specializing in recruiting, talent management and the employee experience for Miami-based Nucleus Research, believes that implementing technologies such as generative AI, enhanced self-service tools and no-code platforms can also help HR professionals rediscover the joy in their work. 

“Introducing more automation can open up HR staff to the part of their jobs they really love and can re-engage them if they’re burned out,” McMullen says. “The more you automate the mundane, the more you also empower HR teams to take on strategic initiatives that might have otherwise stayed on the back burner.”

Clawing back that time allows HR, recruiting, and learning and development professionals to spend more hours helping line managers diagnose the root cause of performance problems; coaching leaders on delivering performance feedback; devoting more time to wooing and building personal relationships with job candidates; and creating new learning initiatives tied to strategic objectives.

When Technology Fuels Burnout 

Tackling problems of burnout and overwork isn’t as easy as simply implementing ChatGPT en masse or automating more manual tasks. Companies can risk fueling rather than alleviating stress or technology fatigue in the HR function by how they choose to purchase and implement new technologies. 

Many HR and recruiting organizations now suffer from “tech stack bloat,” for example, a result of having installed too many specialized or “point” solutions that are redundant or aren’t well-integrated. This technology sprawl causes problems such as too much context-switching—forcing HR or other users to jump from app to app—because it’s difficult to easily locate key documents or data. In other cases, a continued reliance on outdated HR technologies without features such as easy mobile access causes digital friction or exasperation among HR staff and the general workforce.

A study by software vendor ActivTrak found that employees interacted with 20 percent more technology tools, sites and apps in 2022 than in the year before. Microsoft’s 2023 Work Trend Index report also found that growing “digital debt”—in which the inflow of data, email, notifications and meetings exceeds employees’ ability to process it—is not only raising stress levels but also affecting employee performance. More than 60 percent of respondents to Microsoft’s survey said they didn’t have enough time or energy to get their work done, making it difficult for them to be innovative.

 “Technology can be a solution to burnout, but it can exacerbate problems, as well,” McMullen says. “There were a lot of new specialized HR technology platforms released during the pandemic and a lot of marketing promises made by vendors. But when HR has all of these new technology tools to toggle through and navigate, and those platforms or apps aren’t well-integrated or user-friendly, the value of the tools starts to diminish.”

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Taking Inventory

Thomas Stone, a senior research analyst with the Institute for Corporate Productivity in Seattle, conducted a study in 2022 that asked this question of senior-ranking HR leaders from 122 large global organizations: What are the most significant barriers to your HR function’s ability to deliver on the organization’s strategic initiatives? The top response was overload or burnout of employees in the HR function. The second most commonly cited barrier was outdated or insufficient HR technology.

“In fact, survey analysis revealed that outdated HR technology is predictive of HR burnout,” Stone wrote in his survey report. “Those who indicated that their organization’s HR systems are out of date were 7x more likely to cite burnout as a barrier to HR’s effectiveness, regardless of whether or not budget was also cited as an issue.”

Experts say the first step in curing problems such as too many outdated systems or technology sprawl is to take a detailed inventory of your HR technology ecosystem. 

“There are many nascent technologies being used in pockets of organizations today that the rest of the company may not be aware of,” says Gabriela Mauch, vice president of the productivity lab at ActivTrak. “Or perhaps there’s not an awareness that someone sunset the use of Microsoft Office and moved over to Google. The point is: Until you take inventory, you don’t have a good idea of the current technology landscape.”

The next step in the process is to survey employees about their technology preferences and practices, Mauch says, and then make hard choices about which technologies should stay, where improved integrations are needed, and which vendor contracts should not be renewed, to help streamline and optimize a technology stack. 

“You can’t just make the assumption that because few people are using a technology platform or app, that it’s not useful,” Mauch says. “Those tools might be tremendously valuable to the people using them.”

The Job Security Question

As more tools like generative AI are used to address issues of burnout, overwork and productivity in HR, the question arises of whether this new breed of AI will inevitably replace HR jobs. Many technology analysts believe that for the near term at least, generative AI will primarily serve to augment but not replace the work of HR professionals—provided that corporate leaders apply the technology in a thoughtful way.

Ravin Jesuthasan, senior partner and global leader for transformation services at consulting firm Mercer, says research he has conducted shows that companies that “lead with the work rather than the technology” produce better outcomes when combining automation with human capabilities.

“These companies transcend the traditional narrative that technology will always replace an entire job,” Jesuthasan says. “They realize that highly repetitive, rules-based tasks lend themselves to substitution by automation but also understand where human ingenuity, critical thinking and empathy remain critical. These companies also see where the presence of automation creates the space for new human work and creates demand for new human skills.”

Dave Zielinski is a freelance business journalist in Minneapolis.

Photo illustrations by Andrey Popov/iStock.

How Monitoring Protects Against ‘Digital Overload’

One factor that increasingly contributes to burnout among HR professionals is “digital overload,” or spending long, uninterrupted hours glued to computer screens. This “always on” culture grew more prevalent during the pandemic as technology became a lifeline for remote and hybrid workers.

Some companies are tackling the problem by introducing tools that provide alerts, nudges and data-driven insights to help workers avoid technology fatigue and use their online time more wisely. Rather than using monitoring technology for the more draconian purpose of tracking employee keystrokes or inactive time at computers, these tools instead help employees reduce burnout and maximize their productive time when working alone or collaboratively.

“These software tools can help assess the causes of burnout and educate employees about practices that contribute to it,” says John Kostoulas, a vice president specializing in HR technologies with research and advisory firm Gartner. “The ability to identify and document trends like abnormal workload patterns, a workload’s impacts on absenteeism and a growing pattern of errors can help reduce burnout in the workforce.”

One provider of such technology is Austin, Texas-based software company ActivTrak, which offers a “personal insights dashboard” for workers who choose to use the tool to view data on their online work habits. The information can tell employees how often they context-switch (jump from platform to platform); how their productive time is divided across individual focus, collaboration and multitasking; and much more.

The technology runs on a uniquely coded intelligent agent network that collects data on active windows used by employees, according to Gabriela Mauch, vice president of ActivTrak’s productivity lab.

The data also is designed to give leaders increased ­visibility into employee work patterns and help them more thoughtfully balance workloads across different teams. 

“Managers can use the information collected to coach their employees around burnout issues,” Mauch says. “Say the data shows one employee is very productive from 6 a.m. to noon. The manager can reinforce that the company doesn’t want them still working until 6 p.m. because of the potential for burnout.”

The personal insights dashboard also is meant to empower employees to have more productive conversations with managers around such issues as workload concerns, engagement and training needs, Mauch says. 

“It’s tough to expect employees to have a voice around these issues if we don’t equip them with the hard data and knowledge to help drive change,” she says.

Ceridian, a human capital management (HCM) software company in Minneapolis, also recently released a new ­product designed to address the growing problem of ­burnout in organizations.

The vendor’s “burnout dashboard” gives HR leaders a comprehensive view of employee burnout across the company, as well as tips for addressing it. A Ceridian spokesperson says the dashboard uses data from the company’s HCM platform and frequent employee surveys to measure burnout as defined by the World Health Organization, which includes gauging exhaustion, cynicism and reduced efficacy in the workforce. —D.Z.



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